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Dr. Robert Bristow: On Becoming A Physician-Scientist

RobertBristowDr. Robert G. Bristow is the Director of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre (MCRC) at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

Prostatepedia spoke with him about how and why he became a physician-scientist.

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Why did you become a doctor?

Dr. Bristow: I was very interested in doing a PhD to understand how cancer cells actually divided. As part of my graduate studies, one of my mentors, a clinician-scientist, invited me to the clinic so that I would understand the implications of my research with respect to real patients undergoing real therapy. This was when I was in Toronto training at the University of Toronto.

From that experience, I realized three things. One is that the models that I’m using to try to understand how patient tumors respond to radiation and chemotherapy can be quite limited. Finding new ways to study cancer directly in patients would be profound.

The second is the reality that every patient is different and has a different story to tell; therefore, the impact of the cancer, as well as the impact of the cancer treatment on the patient can be very different, even if the biology might be exactly the same. That was a really important lesson to learn.

As I attended more and more of the clinics with my mentor, I saw that there really was a satisfaction in a career as a clinician-scientist; having the benefits of both worlds for basic and clinical research. You can ask clinical questions in collaboration with patients, but at the same time you can interrogate tumor resistance or side effects back in the lab and bring the information into the clinic. That is the real truth. I started off as a scientist, and I became a physician after meeting patients in real clinics with real clinical problems.

You’re saying that your role as a physician and your role as a scientist have a push-and-pull: each informs the other?

Dr. Bristow: That’s exactly right. Most days are terrific as they both feed off each other. But sometimes the laboratory studies do not go as well as planned as your experimental hypotheses are proven incorrect or the funding for studies is not optimal. Even with those setbacks, the reality is that when you go into the clinical realm, it’s just so rewarding and challenging.

The second part, of course, is that your favorite patients may, despite all of the best treatments that you try, not do well. In fact, some will even die of their disease. That really is an upsetting moment. The first time you’re a physician and that happens even though you think you’ve done everything right for that patient, just as you did the same for others, suggests that we don’t have all of the precise answers for an individual patient.

You’ve got to go back into the lab and work harder. It absolutely is a push/pull, but also it’s so rewarding to go back and forth. There’s a real challenge in terms of getting it right: to feed each area with the best ideas that will maximally impact on patients.

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Anthony D’Amico Comments On Prostatepedia’s Radiation Therapy Issue

Photo by Sam Ogden. Anthony D'Amico, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Anthony D’Amico is Professor of Radiation Oncology at Harvard Medical School and Chief of the Division of Genitourinary Radiation Oncology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana- Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. He frames this month’s conversations for us.

Join us to read our July issue on radiation therapy.

Dr. Charles Drake and others have done an outstanding job of describing all of the knowledge that has been assembled to date about the potential role of radiation in the immune-oncology setting.

We know that immune therapy works by removing immunologic breaks. That is, they remove the body’s inability to fight against the cancer because the cancer itself has put a break on the immune system. That is what drugs like Keytruda (pembrolizumab) and others do. These drugs activate a T cell response against specific antigens that exist on the surface of cancer cells.

Everyone knows now that tumors are heterogeneous. They don’t have only one antigen on their surface, so if you made only one antibody against it, it won’t kill every tumor cell. Tumors can have many hundreds of different antigens that the immune system has to find, bind to, and connect with to kill. Radiation has the opportunity to make this happen if you irradiate the primary prostate cancer tumor. You ignite the immune T cell response against the antigens that live in the primary tumor as many people have discussed doing.

But that may not be sufficient. If a tumor has, say, a hundred antigens, but there are already cells in circulation that have escaped, then sometimes we can’t detect them with imaging because they’re below the level of resolution of our scans. Those cells developed different antigens (or mutations) that give them the ability to get away from the primary tumor, and they’re continuing to mutate and develop new antigens. If all of that occurs, then those cells can go on eventually to metastasize. The immune system won’t recognize them because the antigen(s) on their surface are different from the antigen(s) that are in the primary tumor.

To circumvent this issue, people are now combining radiation with immunotherapy. They irradiate the primary tumor in select men who have a couple of metastases—the so-called oligometastatic state—and then they irradiate those as well. By doing so, you potentially capture the antigens on the cells that have escaped the primary tumor and metastasized. This increases the probability of capturing all of the antigens and eliciting an immune response with T cells being activated against all the possible antigens that this tumor might carry.

Therefore, radiation therapy may have its biggest impact in the immune oncology setting in a patient with oligometastatic disease. For diffuse metastatic disease, it may be too overwhelming to radiate all sites safely. In summary, I’m concerned that if we just treat local, regional disease, the tumor volume that you’re radiating may not be expressing all of the mutations or all of the antigens that the T cells need to be directed towards. There could be cells already in circulation that have new mutations and new antigens that the primary just doesn’t have.

I’d like to make a point about Zytiga, (abiraterone), Xtandi (enzalutamide), and Erleada (apalutamide), which are mentioned in several conversations in this issue of Prostatepedia.

When a man is diagnosed with high-risk prostate cancer, the usual treatment is radiation followed by 18 months to 3 years of hormonal therapy.

After radiation therapy, and after about six months of hormonal treatment, the nadir value of the PSA is a very important value. It can predict the future. Many studies show that, at that point, a PSA value over 0.5 ng/ml portends a bad prognosis. Many of those men will die of prostate cancer. If that nadir value of PSA is above 0.1, they won’t do as badly, but they still do more poorly than those whose PSA becomes undetectable.

It is thought that this is because people who still have a persistently elevated PSA after being on standard hormonal therapy like Lupron (leuprolide) and Casodex (bicalutamide) already have evidence of castrate-resistant disease. Even though it may not be visible on staging scans, it appears to be refractory to the hormonal therapy they’re receiving. The novel thought is that using drugs like Zytiga (abiraterone), Xtandi (enzaludamide), and Erleada (apalutamide) at an earlier time will improve outcomes.

Specifically, if we intervene earlier, i.e. before the person is declared a PSA failure—PSA failure is defined as his nadir, or lowest, PSA plus 2 points—we have a chance to do better. Currently, if the nadir value is 0.2, you’d be called a PSA failure at a PSA level of 2.2 or higher. That could take months or years to happen after the nadir. So, if we know someone is destined to do poorly based on their nadir value, we can intervene earlier.

To that end, we have created a randomized trial in which men with high risk prostate cancer, who are on track to receive at least 18 months of hormonal therapy, are entered at the time of PSA nadir. This is usually six to eight months into the radiation and hormonal treatment plan, while their remaining hormonal therapy is still ongoing. We then randomize them to either standard of care, which is continuing the standard hormonal therapy for their intended 18-month to 3-year course, or to the rest of their hormonal therapy (supplemented by both Zytiga (abiraterone) and Erleada (apalutamide)).

This concept was recently approved. The trial will launch in 2019 as an international, randomized study. This trial is quite exciting because, while the doctors in this issue of Prostatepedia discuss the current and future use of these drugs, nobody has studied them in this particular setting. This unique setting captures people who have a poor prognosis and are very likely to die of the disease.

This concept is also novel because we catch them at a time when intervention with these novel agents may have a higher likelihood of success. We’re not waiting months and years for that formal definition of PSA failure to happen before we intervene.

Finally, I’d like to add that it’s an absolute privilege to work clinically and do research in the field of prostate cancer in this day and age. I’ve never seen so many opportunities and new discoveries in such a short period of time. I believe that, given all the ongoing research, it will continue.

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Frontiers In Radiation Therapy

When you’re diagnosed with prostate cancer, you’re usually offered three options: monitor the cancer to see if it progresses, elect to have your prostate surgically removed, or elect to have the cancer treated with radiation therapy. Radiation is also used after surgery or in the event that the cancer comes back after that initial treatment.

Most of you are familiar with radiation therapy for prostate cancer—how it works, potential side effects, and special considerations. Even if you have not had radiation, chances are you’ve got a friend of relative who has.

This month, however, we’re delving into less often discussed aspects of radiation therapy: the role genomics will play in radiation therapy, why we might consider combining radiation with immunotherapy, the impact imaging has on radiation therapy, and the role radiopharmaceuticals play.

Dr. Robert Bristow of the University of Manchester gives us a sweeping overview of precision radiation therapy—from functional imaging to genomics—as well as a run-down of molecularly-targeted agents.

Dr. Charles Drake of the New York- Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center discusses radiation therapy and the elusive but intriguing abscopal effect.

Dr. William Hall of the Medical College of Wisconsin talks to us about the precision radiotherapy movement and how it will revolutionize patient care.

Dr. Daniel Spratt of the University of Michigan Health System talks abouta clinical trial he’s working on with Dr. Felix Feng from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) that uses genomics to determine which patients will receive a combination of radiation therapy and Erleada (apalutamide) and which will get a placebo.

From Dr. Ralph Weischelbaum of the University of Chicago we hear about the thinking behind combining radiation therapy with immunotherapeutic agents—with a cautionary note.

Dr. Johannes Czernin from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) talks about a clinical trial he’s running on a radiopharmaceuticalagent—a PSMA targeted lutetium-177. He is looking for patients to join, so if you think you might be a fit, please reach out to him at the email address included at the end of his conversation.

Ms. Merel Nissenberg offers the National Alliance of State Prostate Cancer Coalition’s stance on hypofractionated radiation therapy.

Finally, Ron B. tells us about his experiences with stereotactic body radiation therapy. He has some advice for those of you in a similar situation to the one in which he found himself.

We suggest you read through this month’s conversations and then send the issue to your health care team so that you can discuss the contents with them.

Subscribe to read our July conversations about radiation therapy.


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Ms. Merel Nissenberg: Hypofractionated Radiotherapy

IMG_3119Ms. Merel Nissenberg is the President of the National Alliance of State Prostate Cancer Coalitions, a nation-wide organization comprised of state prostate cancer coalitions dedicated to saving men’s lives and enhancing the quality of life of prostate cancer patients and their families through awareness, education, and the development of a public policy network.

She offers two views of hypofractionated radiotherapy for prostate cancer.

NASPCC supports the use of new treatments and therapies that good evidence shows help prostate cancer patients, but only those that do not have more risks than benefits as compared to conventional care. Consider radiation therapy in prostate cancer. As radiation therapists and medical oncologists consider future trends in radiation therapy for prostate cancer, there are two settings in which the idea of hypofractionated radiotherapy is being explored. It may not yet be ready for prime time.

The first setting is either the postoperative adjuvant period for prostate cancer patients with aggressive pathological features following radical prostatectomy or as salvage therapy for patients with biochemical recurrence after prostatectomy. Although there is now evidence from Phase III trials supporting the use of hypofractionation in terms of good biochemical control and favorable short-term toxicity, the role of such radiotherapy in these patients is still considered investigational due to conflicting results with long-term genitourinary late toxicity.

The second setting involves men with localized prostate cancer who are often treated with external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) as their primary treatment, with treatments given over the course of 8-9 weeks. For these types of localized prostate cancer patients, trials are now being conducted to ascertain the noninferiority of hypofractionation.

That is, can larger doses of radiation per treatment over a shorter time be just as effective as standard EBRT and with no increased toxicity?

In one such trial reported in Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2017 (V35, no. 17, 1884-1890), intermediate risk patients were randomized to either conventional radiotherapy of 78 Gy in 39 fractions over 8 weeks (598 patients) or to hypofractionated radiotherapy of 60 Gy in 20 fractions over 4 weeks (608 patients). No androgen deprivation was allowed during the trial.

The primary outcome was “biochemical-clinical failure” (BCF), defined as the first occurrence of any one of 4 outcomes: PSA failure, hormonal intervention, clinical evidence of local or distant failure, or death as a result of prostate cancer. Median follow-up was 6 years.

The five-year BCF disease-free survival was 85% in both arms of the trial, and there were no significant differences between the two arms in terms of grade 3 or worse late GU and GI toxicity. There were twelve deaths as a result of prostate cancer in the standard RT arm, and ten deaths as a result of prostate cancer in the hypofractionated arm.

The trial investigators concluded there is evidence to support the use of moderate hypofractionated RT in patients with intermediate-risk prostate cancer but not in high-risk disease.

For hypofractionated radiotherapy to be adopted as standard practice for patients with intermediate-risk disease, it must be shown to be equivalent or superior to conventional radiotherapy in terms of excessive toxicity, especially late radiation genitourinary and gastrointestinal toxicity. More studies are therefore needed, particularly because there has been conflicting evidence in terms of such toxicity.

While some reports from last year conclude that moderate hypofractionation is safe and effective for localized prostate cancer and further suggest it should be standard of care, it cannot be over-emphasized that caution is strongly urged.

Longer-term toxicities are not yet known from the increased dosage of radiation with the new modalities. NASPCC strongly supports more clinical trials and longer-term follow-up to answer the question of long-term toxicity with the use of hypofractionation.

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Prostatepedia’s July Issue On RT

When you’re diagnosed with prostate cancer, you’re usually offered three options: monitor the cancer to see if it progresses, elect to have your prostate surgically removed, or elect to have the cancer treated with radiation therapy. Radiation is also used after surgery or in the event that the cancer comes back after that initial treatment.

Most of you are familiar with radiation therapy for prostate cancer—how it works, potential side effects, and special considerations. Even if you have not had radiation, chances are you’ve got a friend of relative who has.

This month, however, we’re delving into less often discussed aspects of radiation therapy: the role genomics will play in radiation therapy, why we might consider combining radiation with immunotherapy, the impact imaging has on radiation therapy, and the role radiopharmaceuticals play.

Dr. Robert Bristow of the University of Manchester gives us a sweeping overview of precision radiation therapy—from functional imaging to genomics—as well as a run-down of molecularly-targeted agents.

Dr. Charles Drake of the New York- Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center discusses radiation therapy and the elusive but intriguing abscopal effect.

Dr. William Hall of the Medical College of Wisconsin talks to us about the precision radiotherapy movement and how it will revolutionize patient care.

Dr. Daniel Spratt of the University of Michigan Health System talks about a clinical trial he’s working on with

Dr. Felix Feng from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) that uses genomics to determine which patients will receive a combination of radiation therapy and Erleada (apalutamide) and which will get a placebo.

From Dr. Ralph Weischelbaum of the University of Chicago we hear about the thinking behind combining radiation therapy with immunotherapeutic agents—with a cautionary note.

Dr. Johannes Czernin from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) talks about a clinical trial he’s running on a radiopharmaceutical agent—a PSMA targeted lutetium-177. He is looking for patients to join, so if you think you might be a fit, please reach out to him at the email address included at the end of his conversation.

Ms. Merel Nissenberg offers the National Alliance of State Prostate Cancer Coalition’s stance on hypofractionated radiation therapy.

Finally, Ron B. tells us about his experiences with stereotactic body radiation therapy. He has some advice for those of you in a similar situation to the one in which he found himself.

We suggest you read through this month’s conversations and then send the issue to your health care team so that you can discuss the contents with them.

Download the issue.


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Radiation Therapy

Pp_July_2018_V3_N10_Thumb

Our July issue on radiation therapy debuts next week.

In the meantime, Dr. Snuffy Myers frames this month’s conversations for us.

Subscribe to read the issue next week.

This issue focuses on the interaction between radiation therapy and immunotherapy for prostate cancer. This interaction has been extensively documented in laboratory models where the combined treatment can show benefit even in metastatic prostate cancer.

In the laboratory models, it appears that cancer cells damaged or killed by radiation trigger an immune response. This response can be enhanced by additional agents.

The most promising situation to test this approach is in patients with oligometastatic prostate cancer. These patients have 5 or fewer metastatic lesions that can be targeted by radiation therapy. In this setting, all detectable prostate metastases receive a radiation dose sufficient to treat the cancer.

The hope is that triggering an immune response will enhance the ability of radiation to kill all cancer in the irradiated lesions. There is also a hope that this immune response might suppress the growth of cancer metastases that are present but not radiated because the lesions are too small to be detected. This would act to delay the appearance of new metastatic lesions and possibly extend survival.

There are several unresolved issues in this area of research. First and foremost, immunotherapeutic agents with activity against prostate cancer are of limited effectiveness currently. For example, while the Provenge (sipuleucel-T) vaccine is FDAapproved to treat prostate cancer, it extends survival by only months. Immune checkpoint inhibitors, such as those that target PD1/PD1L, can cause dramatic responses, but they do so in only a small proportion of patients. Nevertheless, prostate cancer immunotherapy is a very active area of investigation with a number of promising concepts at various stages of testing.

Another unresolved issue is when is the best time to administer immunotherapy with regard to radiation treatment—before, during, or after. Radiation dose may also be critical as extensive radiation can dramatically suppress immune system function.

Despite these limitations, this is a research area worthy of investigation. The ultimate goal of cancer treatment is a durable complete remission. As it is unlikely that patients with metastatic cancer will ever be cancer-free, a more reasonable goal is to place remaining cancer cells in a state of dormancy. In laboratory models, immunotherapy is one of the most successful approaches to achieve cancer dormancy.

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Patients Speak: Let’s Talk About It

Gary H spoke with Prostatepedia about prostate cancer journey and the choices he’s made along the way.

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How were you initially diagnosed with prostate cancer?

Gary H: I live in Colorado, and I get a physical every year. I didn’t know this, but my doctor started checking my PSA at 40. About five years ago, when I was 54, my doctor said my PSA went up from 2.0 to about 4.4. He said there was a small chance of cancer, but when it gets up to that number, it’s important to check it, so he recommended a biopsy. I went in there just for a physical. Next thing you know, I’m going to get a biopsy.

I found a good doc, went in, and did the biopsy. He did about 12 needles. It turned out that I had some cancer in certain parts of my prostate.

He said, “You’re a young guy. Just go take it out.” But I started researching more and more, and because my PSA wasn’t going up very fast, I started the journey looking at what to do.

Where did you go for research? Did you turn to the internet? Friends?

Gary H: Yes. I talked to people I know who knew someone who went through it. I just talked to lots of people who had a friend, brother, or relative, and I just called them. From them, I heard everything from “I had it taken out” to “active surveillance.” I was getting calls about the proton or doing brachy. I was amazed by how many different approaches there are. I got a feeling for what I needed to do, and then I talked to four or five top surgeons and in different places, like Sloan Kettering, Johns Hopkins, and MD Anderson.

You did your due diligence.

Gary H: I sure did. I did everything I could possibly do, and from what I understood, if PSA is under 10, it hasn’t spread. I had about 8, but it wasn’t going very fast. I found a fairly young fellow in Denver that I had a lot of confidence in. After speaking with about seven people who had it removed and told me what to expect, I elected to have it removed. That was a big decision.

How did you find the surgeon that you ended up going with?

Gary H: I felt that someone who had done thousands of prostatectomies was just knocking them out, going right through them and probably pretty fast. I wanted someone who hadn’t done so many but who really took his time, someone very serious about it, someone who cared maybe a little more. The surgery may take only an hour, but I wanted a meticulous person.

A friend of mine who sold healthcare products in hospitals all over spoke very highly of this one doctor in Colorado. That’s how I found my doctor. Then I had to decide between the old fashioned or robotic way. While the guys that go in there with their hands can feel what’s going on, which can be beneficial, there can be a lot more bleeding. I chose robotic because there would be less bleeding, and I’m glad I did.

Did you have any side effects after the surgery?

Gary H: Not really. Because I was young, they said I should be fine, and I really didn’t have any side effects. It took me a little longer to heal than I thought it would. I started exercising maybe before I should’ve. I should’ve waited a little bit longer.

Otherwise, everything went the way it was supposed to, and everything was great. That was a little over three years ago. I have been as athletic as ever, and I never had a problem with incontinence.

What kind of monitoring did they do after the surgery?

Gary H: About every three months, for about three years, I had my PSA checked. About five months ago, my PSA showed up as 0.02. Before that, it was 0.01, which is what they call undetectable. It’s still undetectable, but it went up to 0.06. I just had another test, and I’m waiting on the results. It’s a whole new program now.

As far as what I’ve learned, the doubling time is the big thing, and so it’s been doubling every two or three months, which is pretty quick. But the number is very low. I’m starting to ask questions again, but the speed is the concern, not so much the number.

Right: the velocity, they say.

Gary H: Right. Depending on this new test, I may have it radiated.

Is this something your doctor suggested, or is this a result of your previous research and discussions with other men?

Gary H: Probably a combination. My doctor initially told me that if it gets to 0.20, we should look at doing radiation and maybe hormone. Then, it was only 0.02, so I had a long way to go. Because of the speed of it, he advised to just have it radiated, that I didn’t need the hormone at this point. Because the doubling time is minimal but going faster, the velocity threw me a curve ball.

Have you had any imaging studies to see what’s going on, or is it so far just blood tests that you’re getting?

Gary H: No. No imaging. It’s because the number is so low. They say they wouldn’t be able to detect anything. But I plan to probably do the imaging. My one doc says it doesn’t get in your bones until it goes up to 40 or 50. A PSA of 0.03 or even 0.06 is really just starting to get going, so it’s most likely still in the bed.

For right now, you’re just in a waiting game, right?

Gary H: Yeah. I’m waiting today, actually. But I’m not concerned or worried. It’s a nonissue because of all the information. The more you know, the more comfortable you are. And it’s really out of my mind until maybe the day I’ve got to go and have blood work. Then, I feel like I’m in the electric chair for the next six to eight hours until I find out.

There’s that waiting thing, right?

Gary H: That’s right. That’s the only real negative, I suppose.

They call that PSA anxiety.

Gary H: Yeah. There you go. And now I’m not too worried. There are lots of great technologies and options. It’s just the radiation that concerns me, really. I’ve got to be in one place for two months. That’s the thing.

There are many good radiation therapists out there, so I’m sure you’ll be in good hands. It’s also good to have an action plan for what you would do next if you need to take more action, right?

Gary H: It sure is comforting that way. Now, what I went through with prostate cancer is not the same as other forms of cancers. I guess I could say I’m very fortunate to have found it when I did and to have had a doctor that was checking me all the time.

Right. You didn’t even know you were getting your PSA checked.

Gary H: I didn’t even know.

Do you have any thoughts for other men who are newly diagnosed or in a similar situation to yours?

Gary H: When you first hear about it, your initial reaction is: okay, what does that mean? Prostate cancer hasn’t really= changed my life. I still exercise. I feel great. I compete as a golfer. It’s not like all of a sudden I’ve got to go and sit in a chair, and read a book for the rest of my life.

It’s just a nuisance more than anything.

That’s if you stay on top of it. Now, of course, it could’ve been a lot worse. I had an uncle who passed away back in 1982 of prostate cancer, so it was in my family. He had waited and waited. He was supposed to have it out, but he was afraid, so he waited an extra year or two. By then, it was too late.

Do what you have to do initially, and learn as much as you can about your disease. There are lots of people to talk to and options out there.

At one point, for example, I was going to do the brachy. Once, I almost did the cryo. I was actually up at 6:00 am getting ready to go to the hospital for the cryo treatment, but I didn’t. I just didn’t feel right. I went the aggressive route and had it removed. Just do what you have to do. It’s not a painful experience, really. It’s more of a nuisance from your daily activities.

You have to step back, reevaluate, and take some time. Figure out what approach to take, and go that route.

What about reaching out to other men because it sounds like you really did? You had a lot of discussions with your friends and family. Would you recommend that other men do that as well?

Gary H: Oh, absolutely. Everybody’s different. I know people who are not very social and just rely on the internet. Others will talk to every Tom, Dick, and Harry, and that’s how I was. I did a little bit of everything. I had three close pals who had it, so I talked to them.

Everybody’s an individual and different about what approach they want to take. I have a friend who has a similar situation to mine, but he’s chosen active surveillance. He’s really staying right around that number, and it’s not going anywhere.

You do read conflicting things, for example, that PSA is not important, but it is important. If it’s on the move, you need to do something about it. So, reaching out and talking with other men is important, even just to sort through conflicting information.

People find it helpful to listen to other men’s stories.

Gary H: I like it a lot. I travel all over as a competitive golfer, and I always wanted to hook up with some organization, so while traveling, I could speak in different towns each week. I am competing. I’m out there. I’ve been through it all. I’d like to share with others.

There’s still a bit of a cultural shyness or reticence about speaking about prostate cancer. Perhaps it’s a gender thing, but a lot of men are hesitant to talk about it.

Gary H: Yeah. I’m not. I’m not at all.

Any way you can get the dialogue out there is good.

Gary H: I’m very open about it. I don’t have a problem. It’s a certain age. It’s not like an 18-year-old so much. We’re older now. Let’s talk about it.

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